He's had his chips, many times over, but John Edmonstone is still to have his last supper

IN the history of fish and chips, Gerald Priestland quotes an American caterer who once told him: ''I don't really think it's a business at all, it appears to be some kind of a way of life.''

When every city is falling to the hamburger hegemony, it's nice to think the fish supper, and its temple, the chippie, is still there as a last expression of our individuality. Because, unlike a burger, fish and chips are different wherever you go, and by those differences you know where you are.

Lets start with the old enemies, England and Scotland. The English fish supper is definitely not the same as the Scottish. We don't even call them the same thing. In their plodding, pedantic way the English name all the parts - fish and chips - while the Scots credit the dish as a real meal - a supper.

Then there's the fish itself. In England anything that swims will do. As an expatriate myself, I grew up with a fish and chip shop which offered cod, skate, sole, halibut, cod's roe, hake, ling, even rock salmon, which everybody knows is really dogfish. It was a weird and wonderful piscine platter. But for the Scots, nothing will do but haddock - the king of fish. As Alan Davidson says in his fishlover's bible North Atlantic Seafood: ''The haddock is held by many, including the knowledgeable Icelanders, to be superior to the cod.'' But don't take our word for it, ask Ian White, owner of the Anstruther Fish Bar.

''In the summer we go through 22 stone of haddock a day'', says Ian, who has been serving up the fish for 16 years in the harbourside chippie, and buys all his fish from nearby Pittenweem. ''In fact, when you get someone asking for cod, you usually assume they're English.

''We've tried a few other fish, we do a finnan haddie as a side line, and we've experimented with sole and skate and the like, but to be honest the Scottish are very conservative when it comes to fish, and the haddock is definitely the most popular.''

So the haddock is king across Scotland? Well, certainly, the Scots' predilection for melanogrammus aeglefinus gives them their separateness from the English. But don't make the mistake of believing that's true wherever you go in Scotland. Certainly the west of Scotland is the heartland of the fish supper. In Glasgow you find such restaurants as the Corvi family's Val D'Oro, which claims to be ''Home of the Great Glasgow Fish Tea'' as well as the oldest restaurant in Glasgow, and here the haddock rules. Go east, and you'll still find very much the same kind of menu, though oddly the trimmings differ. Edinburgh chippies offer you ''salt and sauce'', giving free something for which a lot of Glasgow's chippies charge an extra 10p.

Move to some of the coastal villages though, and you start to find that, while haddock is still king, there are a few other princes in court. In Stonehaven, for example, the Haven Fish and Chip Bar always carries a catch of the day, which can include such delights as rock turbot - a kind of catfish - along with large home-made fish cakes. Towns such as this, with a fishing tradition, pride themselves on using the local catch, and there certainly seems to be a willingness to try something a bit different (including, unfortunately, the appalling range of deep-fried sweets, such as a Mars Bar supper). In fact it is in the North-east of Scotland that you really do find a local flavour to the menu, and where haddock fights for its place alongside other deep-fried delights.

The Deep Sea Restaurant is one of the cornerstones of the east coast chip shop scene, having been run in Dundee by the Sterrpaio family since 1939. Raymond Sterrpaio, who currently owns and manages it with his brother, Lawrence, has been in the business for 30 years, having taken it over from his father, Bruno. With all that experience, Raymond has a very clear idea of what sells best in this part of Scotland.

''Haddock is still the main fish, but lemon sole is the next most popular here,'' he claims. ''We don't do much whiting - that sells more on the west coast. But the other thing that is very popular is the pudding - white puddings, black puddings, haggis, and red pudding, which is a bit like the English saveloy.

''The red was very popular in Fife when I was a young boy, but it disappeared for a long time, and now you're tending to get the smoked sausage supper taking its place.

With all his experience Raymond has seen a lot of changes, in the market, in the competition, and most of all in the product. ''When I first started, you could pretty much guarantee that nine out of 10 orders would be for fish suppers. Now it's more like 3 out of 10. The peak for us was from about the mid fifties to the late sixties. We could go through 26 or 27 stone of fish a day at the weekends, and when you think that there were about 45 fish suppers to the stone, that's an awful lot of fish and chips. We could hardly keep up with it.''

As the fish and chip trade has changed, shops like the Deep Sea have tried to move with the times without losing too much of the traditional produce the public expects.

''Oh we've tried everything really'', laughs Raymond, ''and some of it has been pretty horrible. We tried trout fillets and salmon steaks for about three years, but to be honest, while the trout stands up to deep frying reasonably, it's just wasted on salmon, which is a grossly over-rated fish anyway. Then we tried squid and shark. I can assure you that there is nothing worse than a shark steak, deep-fried - nothing!''

Striking a balance between experimentation and tradition in a changing market can be difficult. For example, the public now tends to want its fish and chips cooked in vegetable oil rather than animal fat, and the Sterrpaios have had to search long and hard to find an oil which gives the right flavour. Then there's the problem of batter, which in shops like the Deep Sea is always made by hand.

''When we entered the EC we couldn't easily get the sort of flour we had always used'', explains Raymond. ''It came from Canada - Canadian Peach - and was a very strong flour. The flour we use now is a strong flour made for the bakery industry, for cakes, but it gives the right kind of batter, something which holds less air and fat, and which seals the fish better.''

The more you listen to Raymond Sterrpaio, the more you realise that the industry he represents will never succumb to the burger factor: ''I think the small, family-run shop will always stay an individual place - there are so many different ingredients, from the product itself to the skill of the fryer. Though my brother and I both cook here, I could guarantee to taste a fish supper and tell you which of us has cooked it. We've got to keep those differences, and keep knowing what it is that the customer wants.''

And as long as that happens, a bag of chips will tell us all we need to know about the sociology of the fish supper. Vive la difference!